Supervision without a Supervisor: EU data protection watchdog in danger

This post was written by Marios Papandreou, Engagement Intern


Last Thursday, Europe’s top privacy watchdogs stepped down at the conclusion of their terms. This week, the European Commission has yet to name a successor for its most important privacy posts. At a time when the European Union is actively considering landmark privacy legislation and simultaneously responding to the Snowden mass surveillance revelations, this is at best a shocking oversight and at worst a deliberate attempt to undermine Europeans’ privacy rights.

Peter Hustinx, the former European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), and Giovanni Butarelli, the Assistant Supervisor, left office on Thursday, January 16th, following five year terms. The primary responsibility of the EDPS is to supervise how the EU institutions and bodies process personal data, and ensure that they respect European data protection laws.

Since Hustinx’s appointment, the EDPS has proven to be a strong advocate for the right to privacy. He spoke out against the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), produced opinion papers on the importance of net neutrality to ensure the protection of personal data, and was a vocal opponent of the controversial Data Retention Directive, which he called “the most privacy invasive instrument ever.”

The EDPS is appointed by the European Commission from a list based on a public call for candidates. With the conclusion of the previous term now past, one would expect that the appointment procedure would be nearly over, or at least entering its final stage. In fact, it has not even begun.

This unacceptable delay prompted Hustinx to write to the Commission to express his “serious concerns about the procedure” regarding the “uncertainty as to when the new team of Supervisors will be appointed.” Hustinx pointed out that this delay may harm the effectiveness of the Supervisor in the months to come, and recalled that the E.U. is currently in a critical period concerning privacy and data protection, which are guaranteed by the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Of concern is the Commission’s proposal to update and harmonise data protection rules through a Data Protection Regulation, still in the process of negotiation, which will be binding on all 28 members states. Without a strong oversight mechanism such as the EDPS, this delay could severely impact privacy and data protection in the European Union. Instead, the Commission’s delay shows indifference, and the inability to deal in a timely and appropriate fashion with an issue of major importance to European users. We echo Hustinx’s call in urging the Commission to “ take all the steps necessary to ensure that a new Supervisor and Assistant Supervisor will be appointed as soon as possible.”